Thursday, August 10, 2006

Accidental heroes, reluctant exiles

The armed conflict going on between Israel and the Hezbollan in Lebanon that is forcing thousands of terrified overseas Filipino workers (OFW) to go home, the stories and the images one reads, hears and sees are the stuff OFW nightmares are made of.

I couldn’t help thinking of the many past crises in that part of the world that OFWs have had to bear. And I thought, if we were to put together the feature stories on the overseas Filipino workers that came out in the Inquirer, the human interest stories particularly, and the photos too, they would fill several volumes. This has been playing in my head for days now. (By the way, the Inquirer has a book publishing department.) The stories would form part of our written national history. As they are, they would also be interesting stories—cinematic, dramatic, heart-rending, tear-jerking, sad, triumphant. Future generations would certainly look upon these stories with amazement at how their ancestors survived hardships in hostile lands in order to give their descendants a better life.

I have lost count of the many OFW stories I have written over the years. There was this Filipino domestic helper (DH) in Kuwait who killed her employer (a cruel princess) while they were vacationing in Cairo, while another DH lived it up in another royal household somewhere across the desert. Here were husbands and children who were left behind by the women in their lives, and NGOs that help OFW families stay whole. Recently I wrote about the Filipinos who work aboard a luxury cruise ship.

Pre-departure areas in international airports abroad, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, where homecoming OFWs gather for their final flight home, are places where one could eavesdrop on or join in OFW conversations. How long have they been away, where did they work, what was it like, who did they leave behind at home and who are meeting them in Manila, what are their pasalubongs. The stories are endless.

I suddenly feel uneasy when I am asked where I have come from and have to give an honest answer so unlike theirs—that I was away for only a week or so, that I am a journalist on a work-related trip, or worse, a turista. On learning that, some start calling me “Ma’am” but continue to tell their story.

Recently I went over past issues of the Sunday Inquirer magazine where many of the longer features on OFWs had come out. I remember how we put together a whole issue on the OFWs who braved the bombs and suffered hunger, thirst and the desert heat while trying to escape the 1990s Gulf War and finding a way to go home to the Philippines.

The stories of and about the OFWs that appeared over the Inquirer’s 20 years have moved on like a progressing plot, so to speak. The allegorical Every OFW must be awfully worn out by now, advancing in age, but still slaving away in faraway lands, dreaming of that day when he or she could finally come home, the growing number of dependent grandchildren notwithstanding.

New Year 1995 it was when the Inquirer announced that the OFW was Inquirer’s Filipino of the Year for 1994. I look at the Jan. 1, 1995 front page right now and the front-page photo of a returning OFW stares at me. There she is, looking straight at the camera, her long hair somewhat disheveled and wearing a branded sweat shirt and denim pants, carrying loads of pasalubong—a carton, a bag and several plastic bags. An inside photo has more of the same—a group of sturdy, smiling men with hand-carried stuff, striding out of the airport.

I look at the un-bylined piece (which I, uh, wrote) and I ask, “What is wrong with the title?” The kicker is “1994 Filipino of the Year” and the title is “The overseas contract worker.”

Well, we don’t call them overseas contract workers (OCW) anymore. We now call them overseas Filipino workers (OFW). Frankly, I don’t know when, how or why the change happened or who decreed it. One day we just found ourselves saying OFW. The new three-letter name seemed more all-embracing and therefore included even the so-called highly paid Filipino expats abroad who also have contracts with their employers. OFW could no longer refer to OCWs from other countries. It is exclusive to Filipinos. And so it is not the contract, Virginia, it is the Filipino. Or is OFW a euphemism for OCW? Is it more politically correct? What happened to “internationally shared human resources”?

Filipinos have a penchant for re-labeling, as if situations would improve with the change of names. Isn’t this what the superstitious do with sickly infants?

“Our citizens to the world,” former Pres. Ramos called them. “Modern-day heroes,” former Pres. Aquino said. A churchman even considered them as “the most potent missionary resource.” To many they are simply dollar earners. Hounded by poverty and unemployment, these accidental heroes and reluctant exiles have had to leave home for their families’ survival.

But their daring is no match to the bombs that have been falling recently. One returning DH said her Lebanese employers refused to let her leave and told her, “You are only a Filipina, you are not an American, no one will mind you.” One who used bed sheets to escape through the window and then fell to her death. The Inquirer’s banner photo yesterday was that of an OFW on a stretcher. She had jumped out of the window because her employers wouldn’t let her go. I know this is un-Christian but I can’t help but snarl at those employers: I hope the rockets find you and blow you to that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.